Personal policy dictates that any story you cannot summarize in two sentences is probably not worth the trouble. I’m happy to break this rule for Darker Than Black, because while it has a story so convoluted it must have given the back-of-the-box copywriters at FUNimation total fits, it’s a grabber for that exact reason. There’s a fine line between convoluted and confusing, and they dance along that line very carefully in this series.
Darker Than Black starts ten years after some cataclysm — the opening of “the Gate” — the end result of which was the construction of a giant wall around Tokyo. (Whether to seal something in or out, it’s not clear.) Since then, people with strange new powers have appeared — “Contractors”, as they’re called — who sell their powers to the highest bidder and are feared by the powers that be worldwide. Those who come into contact with Contractors have their memories forcibly erased by the authorities — that is, those who aren’t killed by the Contractors themselves.
Contractors are a curious bunch. No two of them sport the same powers, but in every case their powers come at a cost: when they run out of energy, they must complete a sort of obsessive-compulsive personal ritual to “recharge”. Mostly it’s something innocuous, like dog-earing every single page in a book, or laying down a hundred stones in a perfect grid. Sometimes it’s a lot more than that; in a moment that struck me as a sidelong reference to Blade Runner, one Contractor has to break his own fingers in order to continue. Read more
Even if I didn't make it to 50,000 words this year, I still think NaNoWriMo was more than worth the effort. Now that Tokyo Inferno is "booted up" and running, I can slow down a little bit and concentrate on getting more of it written at a pace that better suits my current lifestyle.
I've tried to prune out a lot of things from the way I live, as a way to get avoid getting too caught up in distractions, but in the end it always comes back down to a few basic things: my job, my family, my writing, and some online activities including this website. Any one of those things alone eats up a lot of time, and it gets worse when you factor in any number of other distractions that can simply throw themselves at you.
A few new things came my way, though. Among them is an author of the period that Tokyo Inferno is set in: Satō Haruo, author of The Sick Rose a/k/a Gloom in the Country. I stayed up a little later than I would have liked reading it; the beauty of the language and the author's fondness for the world of nature is downright scrumptious, some of the best sort of thing I've seen since Morio Kita's Ghosts.
I also popped in Love and Honor, and while a full review is of course pending, my quick impression is that it's a nice rounding-out to the trilogy of The Hidden Blade and When the Last Sword is Drawn. Old-fashioned, but not in the stifling way that Dora-heita was. (I also have Hana and both Genghis Khan movies waiting to be checked out when time [ha ha] permits.)
Welcome to the best new anime series that you have probably never heard of.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is up there in the same stratosphere with Cowboy Bebop, Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and all other anime that not only entertain and dazzle but enlighten and illuminate.
More than anything else, Moribito is adventure on an epic scale — one of those rare shows that creates its own world and draws us into it completely. It’s an adaptation of the first book in Nahoko Uehashi’s series of novels by the same name, now being released in English and which I took a look at on my own earlier this year. The book was outstanding, and reading it only raised my anticipation for the series all the more. The series is, if anything, even better: it expands on the original in all the right ways, the way Basilisk used its source novel The Kouga Ninja Scrolls as inspiration rather than a lockstep path to follow, and produced a masterpiece of its own kind too. Look at me: not even three paragraphs in and I’m already sliding into blathering fanboy gush. There’s a reason for that.
Moribito is set in the land of New Yogo, a fictional amalgam of multiple Asian cultures, mainly Japan, China and Korea, but with touches of Tibet and Thailand and Cambodia and well. A terrible drought has been devouring the whole country — and in a classic example of “show, don’t tell”, this is not dramatized in dialogue but demonstrated in the show’s masterful opening shots, where only a small island of arable land remains amidst a growing desert.
Returning to New Yogo after several years’ absence is Balsa: bodyguard-for-hire, master of the spear, and carrier of a burden of guilt and atonement that she may never fully discharge. She rescues a boy from certain death when he’s thrown off a bridge, and learns after the fact that the young fellow is Chagum, an heir to the highest throne in the land. What’s doubly surprising to her is to learn that this was no accident, but an assassination attempt — the latest of many, as the boy’s mother explains to her under the cover of night. She is prepared to pay Balsa handsomely to have him spirited out of the castle and protected for as long as it takes to have his would-be killers found and dealt with. Read more
Those of you in the U.S. reading this, you know what that's all about — but I'll elaborate anyway. I spent today with the folks — it was a small but wonderfully arranged Thanksgiving dinner, with only myself, my wife, my parents, a friend of theirs (Betül) and her parents as well. Things were made all the more amusing by the fact that Betül's parents didn't speak English, but she was happy to provide a running translation in both directions for all of us. The best highlight of the evening in this respect was when my wife talked about the very last time she ever worked in retail (it's a potential story for the Customers Suck LiveJournal community, let me put it that way).
We went back home happy, stuffed, and almost needing a trailer hitch to carry back all the leftovers we were given. And since I was smart enough to do most of my holiday shopping across the course of the year, I'm spending tomorrow getting caught up on my reading and DVD watching, neener neener.
How about some Chocolate? That's right — the stupefying Thai martial-arts blowout that looks like it may well one-up or at least sit comfortably on the shelf next to Ong-bak is headed Stateside in Region A. And, yes, a conventional DVD edition is also coming out.
Enjoy the stuffing, everyone.
I've got bad news, but maybe it's actually good news in disguise.
The bad news is simple: It doesn't look like I'm going to get to 50,000 words by the end of November. I gave it a good college try, and I'll still be writing something during the long weekend, but hitting the 50K mark by that deadline is strictly off the table.
It wasn't just that I fell behind. I'm genuinely exhausted, and it's the kind of exhaustion that crept up on me and invaded my bones and blood while I was convincing myself it was just "laziness". I'd dealt with back-to-back conventions, friends visiting, a surprising amount of work (both the kind that provides a paycheck and otherwise), family obligations, and that stupid ATI "driver stopped responding" error. Throw NaNo on top of that and you have a recipe for do-it-yourself anemia.
How any of this is good news is disguise is hard to fathom, I suspect. Well, it means I've given myself that much more permission to take it easy for the rest of the year. I have a good idea for how Tokyo Inferno is to be written and wrapped, and I don't need to have it done and put to bed until this coming August. Heck, if I get lucky, I can wrap that and then maybe go back to work on the project that was NaNo '07 (which remains unfinished, and more annoyingly, untitled).
Criterion's new site is live! Aside from a redesign, they now offer a good many of their movies as streaming downloads for $5 a pop, and have trailers for quite a few others as well. Plus the ability to comment on or discuss titles, something I'm glad they made a native part of the site.
The magnificently lush but ultimately disappointing Wonderful Days is being released domestically on Blu-ray as Sky Blue, courtesy of Tartan. It doesn't work as a story, but as pure filmmaking and imagery it's unparalleled.
After my last post, I found myself thinking: If you were going to stage a film festival for North Korea (or some other country that has been under totalitarian rule with virtually no access to the outside world), what movies would you screen for them and why?
Here's my short list:
I'd to include at least one animated production, and I'm leaning towards one of the Miyazaki films by default. But failing that, I could include something like Beauty and the Beast — one of the better Disney productions on all levels.
The Times has an absolutely fascinating piece about a film festival in North Korea — one showing, amazingly, a fair clutch of movies from the forbidden West.
I'm curious about seeing the recent North Korean production A Schoolgirl's Diary, which has apparently passed muster as good cinema with non-Korean audiences.
Because this got posted so far back into the archive, there's a chance many people might not see it. My old review of Ya Ho Wha 13's colossal God and Hair 13-disc box set (the original, "big" Captain Trip pressing) has been reposted.
Even better: I have a copy of the thing for sale.
I don't have sound samples on me at the moment but I might add one later when I get another spare moment.
A common beginning exercise for the budding critic: take the work in question and create an explanatory parallel with another work. With Ghost Slayers Ayashi, f’rinstance, you could come up with something like this: “It’s Mushi-shi for people who liked that series but wanted to see more stuff hacked up and asploded real good.”
I keed, I keed. See, it’s easy to be flip when talking about something this good, not least of all because a) it’s loaded with all the things I savor (feudal Japan, fantasy elements derived from same) and b) it’s a solid piece of manga storytelling entirely apart from all that. Ayashi’s a good manga that happens to contain a great many things I already like, rather than it being a bunch of things I already like justifying the existence of the manga they happen to be in. By all accounts it’s the manga adaptation of the series of the same name, since it sports BONES, the animation studio for Ayashi, as one of the story credits. The other name’s Sho Aikawa — no, not the guy who stars in just about every Takashi Miike movie ever made (and good for him, too), but a screenwriter with a ton of venerable credits: 12 Kingdoms, Love Hina, Legend of the Overfiend (!), the criminally underrated Hakkenden, and many more.
Ayashi kicks off in Japan’s later Edo years — the mid-1800s or so, right before Commodore Perry’s black ships sailed into Yokohama and coined the term gunboat diplomacy. Edo is having a bad time of it regardless: a slew of newly-passed sumptuary laws forbid indulging in exactly the kinds of extravagances that helped drive a good chunk of Edo’s economy. Worse, famine in the countryside has forced many people into the city, which has become a hothouse of the hungry, the restless, the disaffected, and the newly-criminal. And underneath all that is yet another problem: the youi. This is the name the government has applied to various beings that have started to manifest — creatures of ostensibly supernatural origins, wreaking havoc on the peasantry and causing more of exactly the kind of unrest the already-edgy Shogunate doesn’t want. To combat this problem, the government has created the “Office of Barbarian Knowledge Enforcement” — a clandestine group whose mission is to find and put a stop to youi manifestations.Read more
This week alone, two people I am on a first-name basis with lost their jobs. Both were with relatively small companies; in one case I'm fairly positive it was a case of belt-tightening that got dropped on his head an unexpectedly as it did anyone else's. The other one, I'm not so sure of, but I had the feeling the handwriting on that particular wall was not so illegible that he couldn't have made it out without some squinting. I don't think either of them were at fault for anything; everything I see tells me this is just another symptom of the lousy-and-getting-lousier economy and nothing more than that.
The last time I talked to either of these folks face-to-face was earlier in the year, when the economy looked shaky but $50-a-barrel oil and the implosion of the Rust Belt would have been seen as irresponsible doomsaying. And now I can only imagine what will happen in the next six months, although I try not to let such things preoccupy my thoughts — there's so much to do right in front of me that getting mired down in a general sense of catastrophe isn't going to help.
I hate saying anything as trite as "we'll get by", but that's the only thing I can come back to that feels remotely honest. Somehow, we muddle through — although I'd rather we be in a position where we didn't have to.
The last word I'll leave to my old friends Front 242:
We will stagger
Lose out bearings
On and on
Yes, there can be no
As we move on, and on and on,
We must tremble
Lame and humble
On and on ... [*]
I haven't had high hopes — or much of any hope, really — for J.J. Abrams's "reboot" of the Star Trek franchise. It doesn't have much to do with Abrams's skill as a filmmaker, really. For me, it breaks down like so:
Devin Faraci of CHUD put it this way, in his look at some sneak-preview footage of the movie:
... something tells me that these characters [the Trek crew] are going to be about endless 'snappy' banter that's never funny and barely counts as dialogue. This is what screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman bring to all the material they write - terrible, tortured dialogue. They're blockbuster blueprinters, not real writers, and having them on this film is probably the greatest strike against it. ... They're exactly the sort of writers who are killing Hollywood, the writers whose ideas feel as formatted and predictable and friendly as their Final Draft scripts.
And that's the problem: "formatted" and "predictable" and "friendly" is exactly what ViaMount wants from Trek. They don't want anything edgy or daring or (gulp) new, because that doesn't put butts in theaters. Actually, never mind butts in theaters; if we go back to the algebra of the exhibitors being the real customers, what ViaMount cares about most is being able to sell the thing in as many territories as possible.
I grew up with old-school Trek, and I have an emotional connection to it that does not transpose easily. I'm fond of it because it is a product of another era, a time when people seemed genuinely afraid of looking forward because they felt like they would see only disaster. That was a time when you could put ad copy like "VALIANT KIRK! GLORIOUS SPOCK!" on the back of one of the James Blish novelization tie-ins and get away with it. It didn't seem silly or self-referential or parodic or wink-wink-nudge-nudge; there was no all-pervading mockery of such things that they had to fight through. People cared about the show because it was something entirely new, in both attitude and form.
That's why this whole thing just smacks of being wrong. It's a puppet play. It's not even a remake or a reboot; it's just another milking of a cow that was out to pasture a long time ago. And the fact that X million dollars is being pumped into it means that much less else out there that's going to be genuinely original.
The last couple of night's catch-up for NaNo / Tokyo Inferno came out a little better than I thought — I'm still behind, but not as grotesquely as I was before.
One of the beauties of last night's run was getting to a point where I understand now what the story is truly about and where it is headed. It was a kind of cards-on-the-table moment, where all the things that mattered most were finally spread out in front of me, and I could see how they were relating to each other.
Something I've had to accept with this book is that it is not the book I started out to write, but that is not a bad thing. The book I set out to write was nothing more than an idea; the book you write is the book you end up with, and it has the benefit of being something you can actually shape and work with. An idea is nothing more than that.
Curiously enough, Janet Fitch (of White Oleander) chimed in earlier this week in the NaNo Pep Talk email with some notes to that effect:
Working on White Oleander, I kept hitting this wall, about chapter 8. It was all going great, all the wheels in motion, and then WHAM. I just couldn't decide what to do next. ... Luckily I was seeing an amazing therapist at the time. ... And she gave me the piece of advice which has saved my writing life over and over again, and I will give it to you, absolutely free of charge. She said, "I know it feels like you have all these options and when you make a decision, you lose a world of possibilities. But the reality is, until you make a decision, you have nothing at all." [Emphasis mine]
When I was barely twenty, I was in what amounted to a doomed collaborative project with another writer. Doomed because neither of us really understood how to pull off or sustain something of the size or scope that we wanted to attempt, and because we were both fairly immature and hotheaded in our own respective ways. We had at least some idea of what we were going to write; my take was, let's just start writing the damn thing and, you know, revise it after. His take was that we had to get everything locked down exactly right beforehand, and so that meant endless rounds of actually writing very little. In the end, we went our separate ways for other reasons, and as far as I know that project hasn't moved forward an iota since. (And, from what I can tell, nothing of value was lost.)
I have to wonder how much of the hesitancy on his part was fear of failure — or, to be more writerly about it, fear of having to endure the drudgery of rewriting. Not all of us are Yukio Mishima, capable of producing a clean first draft that would almost inevitably be sent to the publisher's in exactly that condition. For him, rewriting seemed like an admission of failure in some respect. Well, sure it is — and if you can't admit to a failure of any scope, even a creative project (to say nothing of learning from the mistake), then that doesn't say much about you as a person, or a creator.
Now how the hell did this slip past me!? Director Barbet Schroeder has adapted Edogawa Rampo's short novel The Beast in the Shadows (in English; see Black Lizard). It apparently took a beating in the press, but I'm still wildly curious about the adaptation. Apparently it's a French coproduction, which makes sense given Rampo's fame in that country (although he continues to remain relatively obscure in English).
Really, this is where it all started with me. Before Godflesh and Merzbow, before Meat Beat Manifesto and Suicide, before John Cage even, there was Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Kontakte, recorded over fifty years ago and yet still sounding timeless. Our ears, as Cage himself said, are now in excellent condition.
Aside from being a groundbreaking piece of electronic music — probably the single most important piece of its kind, second only to Stockhausen’s earlier Song of the Youths (which isn’t nearly as impressive or ambitious to me) — Kontakte has something of the flavor of an epic film that would be unrealizable on any budget in today’s world. The whole of Kontakte had been made by taking electronic pulses and manipulating them on tape, processing them with a limited battery of studio effects, and then splicing together and re-recording the results — a process which took two years of work in the WDR Köln studio to pull off. Given that the piece runs 35 minutes total, that meant the average day’s work for Stockhausen yielded up maybe two and a half seconds of sound. It was the sonic version of stop-motion animation — or maybe Stan Brakhage’s filmmaking, which he accomplished by painting and etching directly onto the film itself.Read more
I haven't read the Twilight books. I probably never will, at this rate. After all the negative press from people whose tastes I trust, the well has been poisoned so thoroughly that not even a Superfund cleanup would help.
What I have heard about the books set off alarm bells all up and down my critical faculties, so you can imagine my surprise when I read a critique of the books from a story-construction POV and found that other people were already roasting Twilight for things I suspected it was guilty of. One of the biggest was the relationship between the two principal characters, which sounded creepy / stalkerish in a way that didn't serve the story in the slightest.
Then I read this gem, on a board dedicated to giving the Twilight books a thorough dressing-down:
... just because something is fantasy does not mean it is unrealistic. The object of writers is to make you believe the story they are telling ... A good fantasy can utilize the idea of soulmates (like Richard and Kahlan in Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series) while still taking time to develop the relationship and the characters in a believable fashion. Attraction =/= everlasting love. Everlasting love happens when you get two people who understand, respect, and enjoy the other in terms of personality and character. Edward's hotness and Bella's delicious blood do not a soulmate make. And justifying the pitiful relationship development with "it's fantasy" is only a crude cop-out reserved for those with no understanding of good storytelling. [*]
That sums it so succinctly there's very little I can add on my own, but here goes.
The other day a friend of mine who'd read both Summerworld and The Four-Day Weekend mentioned that she liked Summerworld, but adored 4DW. The former was fantasy, albeit well-tooled; the latter was her life writ small, and there was so much in it that she recognized and was able to plug right into. I admitted that had been exactly what I was aiming for, but with both books: in Summerworld there's a lot that goes on which is outlandish and fantastic, but it's all rooted in real human need and behavior. It doesn't come out of (or go into) a vacuum. I don't mind a story that features people who suck each other's blood and turn into monsters. I do mind a story that would pretend the logical emotional consequences of such things can be simply hand-waved aside or turned into emotional pornography — which, from the sound of it, is what Twilight's really, really good at.
People are not heroes because the author tells us so, but because the heroes go out and demonstrate their heroism. Guin is a hero: he sticks his neck out first when there's trouble; he takes responsibility for his actions when they fail and credits those who helped him when they succeed; he keeps his sense of humor about him; he never says die. He makes Edward look like the flabby, sullen wimp he is. Now: which one of these two book franchises is currently selling like mad?
Me and the missus caught a whole buttload of commercials and trailers for $10 each, at the local multigigaplex. Oh, and there was a free movie, too: Quantum of Solace. It was a good-if-somewhat-shy-of-great followup to Casino Battle Royale — you know, the Bond movie where he ends up on the island with all those high school students all rigged to explode if he says the word "Moneypenny."
For a movie that runs 1h 45m including credits, it was surprisingly jammed and edited for maximum density. I was genuinely unsure when I could safely sneak out to the bathroom, but my timing turned out to be spot-on: I left and came back during one of the two or three lulls in the whole movie.
There was no J.J. Trek trailer attached to the print I saw, amazingly. There were trailers for Valkyrie (which looked mighty neefty, Tom Cruise notwithstanding) and the new Will "Serious As An Academy Award" Smith flick Seven Pounds.
It wouldn't be a complete month without some new Criterion announcements, would it?
It’s like a cross between a funeral procession, a live performance of The Doors’s “The End” taken to its furthest possible extreme, and the incendiary rantings of a street-corner prophet. J.A. Seazer’s Kokkyō Junreika (“A Pilgrimage Across National Borders”) distills most if not all of the glorious excess from the career of one of Japan’s counter-culture rock gods. It’s not a compilation record, but it might as well be — most everything you’d hear in a J.A. Seazer production is all here, in one 53-minute package. Invocations to the gods, tantrums, chants, Buddhist mantras, cries to the heavens, fuzztone guitar vamps — it’s all here.
And yet it all doesn’t sound like an embarrassing leftover from the acid era; it sounds ageless instead of aged. I’ve argued with friends about whether or not this is ethnocentric — i.e., does it sound that much more powerful and exotic by dint of simply not being in English? I don’t think so. There’s something about the way Japan continually transmutes its spiritual roots into popular culture of one kind or another, all without seeming to cheapen it or turn it into just another roadside attraction. When “outsider folk” artists like Shuji Inaba, Kazuki Tomokawa or Kan Mikami (a frequent Seazer collaborator) step up and deliver with speaker-cone-tearing vigor, they transmit something not only deeply felt but deeply believed. It’s not slumming.Read more
Time for some Amazon catch-up…
Note: You can now access this page through a TinyURL shortcut: http://tinyurl.com/6cr2uu
This is a simple index template I whipped up to allow people to crosspost their most recent Movable Type entries to a LiveJournal account.
0.1: First version. Verrry primitive!
This script is released under the terms of the MIT Public License.
1. Create a new index template with the template type as "Custom Index Template", the file extension as .php, and the publishing option as "Static". The exact naming and location is entirely up to you, so long as you can access it without too much hassle. Note that if your publishing options vary you can change either of these to suit, but these are the defaults that work for me. I prefer to publish it as index.php in a directory all its own.
2. Add the following text to the template, and save and publish it:
3. Edit the variables in the section labeled "Set variables here for your website/LJ". This contains your LiveJournal username and password (as LJUSR and LJPWD), the password you'll use to access this page (under PWD), a graphic icon you can use at the top of the page (ICON), and the link to your LiveJournal account (LJ)
If you want to change the options to leave comments, set the prop_opt_nocomments value to 0.
In my personal version of the script, I have it off by default and just append a link to the bottom of every post that links back to the original post:
<p>[<a href="<mt:EntryPermalink>">Comment here</a>]</p>
4. Save and publish the results.
Bookmark the index template and add the parameter ?pwd=<your password set as PWD above>.
Whenever you publish a new entry, go to that page and you'll see text boxes that contain the subject, body of the post, and the tag list. I've left the fields open for editing, but for the most part you don't need to change anything. Click "Post to LJ" and you should see a confirmation message from the LJ servers, along with the URL of your new post.
You'll also see text boxes for each of the posts you've made that are now showing up on the front page. This is useful if you want to post older stuff to LJ (for instance, after an outage).
The "Post list" that floats at top right contains a quick list of all the posts available on this page. Click "Show" to browse the list and "Hide" to close it up. Note that when you click any entry on the list, the list automatically hides after one second.
Better security handling. Hard-coding the password in the template and sending it in plaintext is not secure, period. I plan to do something about this in the future, but right now there are a few things you can do on your own to ameliorate these issues. You can, for instance, hard-code only the username and poll the user for the password by unhiding the password field. I'll probably make this into an option at some point.
As of 0.4, I now prompt for some kind of password as a pwd= parameter in the URL. Again, scarcely industrial-strength, but it'll keep out most casual discovery. (I'm looking into a way to make this play nice with MT's own native login system, actually, but that's a long way off.)
More options. The template only has the most minimal option set. It doesn't let you change the mood or anything else, which are things I want to see if I can pick up from the original post depending on how users have things set up.
The possibility of crossposting to other systems. I'm using Facebook and Twitter a bit more, for instance, so I'm looking at turning this into a general framework for crossposting to multiple services without needing a plugin. That will come much later, though.
Some stuff from the link backlog:
One of the defects of JustTheDisc, despite my undying love for it, is how anything with a Japanese title is rendered incorrectly. Whenever such a thing shows up, you have to do a lot of "reverse engineering" (read: blind guesswork) to find out what some of those things are. It's like an intelligence test: if you pass, you get rewarded with some amazingly rare and wonderful material.
During my last buying spree, I came across something with the title J.A.??????~??????. I wondered if this was a J.A. Seazer release — yes, he of the Utena soundtracks and one of the bigger swathes of Japanese underground psychedelia this side of Keiji Haino and Fushitsusha. I was familiar with him long before Julian Cope's Japrocksampler sold me on the necessity of having at least one of his albums around the house, but his stuff has been terribly pricey and goes in and out of print the way the moon changes phases.
The only way I could even begin to guess which disc it might be was to count the track numbers, count the characters in each track, and compare them against everything in his discography that might match the title in some fashion. Try to imagine my shock when I realized it was Kokkyou Junreika (国境巡礼歌), one of his most sought-after and blitzed-out records — copies of which routinely change hands for $100 or more. And here I was staring at a copy for $3 — granted, without the cover art, but who cared? And even if it wasn't that disc, $3 was not a big gamble to take.
The order showed up yesterday. My guesswork paid off. I'll be writing a review of the disc sometime this weekend.
Criterion's having a clearance sale in preparation for the inauguration of their new warehouse — everything on hand is available for 40% off. Go get it.
There’s a big difference between a truly great show and one you just feel an endearing affection for. Shonen Onmyouji is by no means a ground-breaking piece of work, but darn it all if I don’t like it. It’s got a mix of elements that hits a personal sweet spot, an attractive visual style, and a compulsively watchable storyline. As Frederik Pohl once said about another movie, “It may not be Bach, but it’s certainly Offenbach”, and that’s still plenty good.
A description of the show would probably be best served by talking about the title. Most of us reading this know what shonen means (young man), but onmyouji is probably going to send most of us scurrying for the dictionary. Sometimes translated as yin-yang master, an onmyouji was the feudal Japanese version of your friendly neighborhood ghostbuster — plus astrologer, sorcerer and a few other supernaturally-inclined vocations, all rolled into one. If the term rings a distant bell or three, chances are you might have stumbled across the two live-action movies of the same name, Onmyouji I and II, also issued by Geneon before they ended up in the great Suncoast Video cut-out bin in the sky.Read more
I've created the CDs For Sale page, where you can buy spare copies of some of the discs I've reviewed. Look for new ones there from time to time.
Addendum: Audio samples from the discs in question also show up on that page.
People are perennially curious about the personalities of artists, healthy and dysfunctional alike. Small wonder the biographies of authors capture my attention. Easy example: I dug up not one but two separate biographies of Yukio Mishima — one by John Nathan, the other by Henry Scott-Stokes. Nathan’s was shorter but that much more precise and insightful; the Scott-Stokes work was more rambling and speculative, with a great many digressions about Japanese society that Nathan’s book dealt with a good deal more succinctly.
Aside from the way Nathan’s book dives headfirst into Mishima’s life — he was given an unprecedented level of access to the man’s world by the author’s widow — what caught my fascination the most was Mishima’s compulsive way of contrasting himself against other writers. In his early years, right after WWII, he met Osamu Dazai and told him, flat-out, “I don’t like your writing.” Mishima was downright straight-edge compared to Dazai, a compulsive dissolute whose suicide attempts, extramarital dabblings and drug addictions were already the stuff of legend. But as Mishima admitted later on in an interview, much of his outward “health” was itself a contrast: he was healthy on the outside so he could afford the luxury, as it were, of being sick on the inside.
No society exists without some level of tension between it as a whole and its artists, and the way it manifests in Japan in particular is fascinating to me. I suspect one way Japanese society deals with the artist as an unpredictable quantity is to make it possible to be an artist in a way that is at least marginally predictable. Hence the way, for instance, a manga artist will have the direction of his work planned and dictated to a fair degree by his editor. I’d guess it’s a lot easier today, as opposed to thirty years ago, for a novelist or artist-in-the-abstract to not only make a living but earn a measure of respect from everyone who’s not an “artist” themselves.
It probably helps if you’re a best-selling author — or, as Mishima’s father put it to him, if he was going to quit a good government job and become a writer, he had to become the best in the land. He certainly gave it his college best. Mishima had a six-volume collected works edition published before he was even thirty. Had he not elected to turn the last few years of his life into an extended deathwish, he might well still be writing today (he’d be 83 or so by my math), and most likely fulminating at what he perceived as the further decline of his country. In a revised edition of his book on Mishima, Scott-Stokes speculated about that; he had no doubt Mishima would be shaking his head at the rise of anime and manga as the most immediately visible expression of Japanese culture in an international context.
Most successful artists — whether from Japan or anywhere else — tend to adopt a workmanlike attitude about what they do best. This isn’t an argument that more is better; rather, more creates more opportunities to be better. Manga-ka — and the new breed of light novelists like NISIOISIN, come to think of it — produce at a pace that would have made Mishima proud. Prolificacy is solid evidence of hard work, and if you’re in a field as commercially volatile as writing, the more you can do and the more you have done, the better you’ll survive tough times. (I’m not sure if any Japanese authors ever approached the staggering level of volume produced by Georges Simenon, though, but I’d think of him as a fluke in any country.)
(On a side note, I’m not sure I ever subscribed to the warmed-over romanticism that dictates all artists must be Suffering Beasts that Transmute their Agony into Glory, or somesuch nonsense. It’s a thinly-disguised bit of revenge, really — a way to keep the act of creation something mystical and deliberately weird, instead of something commonplace and ordinary but no less wonderful regardless.)
We’re not always in control. Even when it looks like we have the powers of the gods at our command, it’s provisional. Nature, fate, and mankind too, all have their ways of getting their due.
I don’t want to make it sound like the main lesson to be learned in the second volume of Black Jack is “Give up” — it’s not, and Osamu Tezuka makes that clear time and again. But he also makes it clear that it’s not wise to equate absolute power with absolute control. You can’t stop nature from running its course in its own way — sometimes all you can do is stand back and let things happen, and it takes a wise man to know when to stand back. And sometimes it hurts like hell to do so.
If you haven’t read the series yet, Black Jack’s central premise — an unlicensed surgeon, an apparently amoral figure who can perform miracles for six- and seven-digit sums — probably sounds like a setup for stories where the biggest tests are the limits of the protagonist’s skills. That’s just the setup — the springboard that Tezuka uses to propel us into his universe of difficult moral and ethical choices. There’s one moment in this volume where Black Jack performs a delicate bit of surgery in complete darkness, and it’s not because he’s showing off: he’s trying to engineer a solution to a dilemma that has no easy solution. Read more
Death Trance comes to us courtesy of the same Japanese school of glorious cinematic overkill that brought us Versus, Machine Girl, Meatball Machine and Tokyo Gore Police, and will no doubt bring us many more such examples of wretched excess in the future. Note that I’m not using “wretched excess” as a slam, but a description. It starts on a note of outlandish adventure, then ratchets the stakes up and up and up until the lid blows clean off and smacks you in the forehead.
I mentioned Versus and the rest of that list because Death Trance shares common DNA with all of them. It sports the star and fight coordinator of Versus, Tak Sakaguchi; one of the screenwriters (Yūdai Yamaguchi) also penned Versus, Machine and Versus director Ryuhei Kitamura’s deeply underrated Alive; the FX designer (Keita Amemiya) put together the grossness of Gore Police and Machine Girl; and so on. Most importantly it was, I believe, the first of many transpacific co-productions financed in part by John Sirabella of Media Blasters. It’s a happy set of collaborations all around. The movie looks and sounds terrific — Japanese filmmakers wring every yen out of what amount to fairly tiny budgets — and is great fun to watch in the sense that you can’t wait to see what bit of visceral absurdity will get thrown at us next. Read more
I rented Bertolucci's 1900 and The Last Emperor (the new Criterion edition) from the library, since I'd been meaning to check out both. The former's been re-released in its full 315-minute uncut edition and the latter I'd seen in theaters — and loved — but was wildly curious about the extended cut as well.
What I saw of 1900, though, was a mess — it barely seemed like the same director as The Conformist. What was I to make of a beautifully-lit and -photographed opening scene where Donald Sutherland's character flees from pitchfork-wielding peasants, only to end up looking like something out of a horror movie that even Troma wouldn't have picked up? What was I to make of scenes that mixed brilliance and incompetence, and interlarded epic vistas with unbearably frothy acting and plotting, often in the same shot? What to say about how Bertolucci took upwards of five hours and change to tell a muddle of a story that barely lent itself to synopsizing, let alone watching in depth?
Ebert was lucky enough (?) to see the "shortened" cut of 1900 — four-something hours — back when it first premiered, and lamented the fact that it got shown at all when it could easily have become a lost classic and been hailed without everyone ever needing to sit through a single interminable minute of it. One of his oft-repeated quotes is that no good movie is ever too long and no bad one ever too short, and if 1900 had been hacked down to ninety minutes I suspect that would have been a blessing.
All this brought to mind a question: what constitutes an epic, and why? From what I've seen it's not just length or scope; there has to be something else, some larger vision that is part of the movie's philosophy or construction. (I'm limiting myself to movies for now.) So to that end here's a quick rundown of the things that I would tag with "epic", or which other people would apply the label to freely:
Sum of comments: Epic is what's inside plus what's outside. When both are big, when we can connect with both of them at the same time, that's what epic is all about.
“the listeners of these recordings will always enjoy the most intense reactions of all because they are the most violently repulsive records ever conceived”
So read the text that accompanied Whitehouse’s Buchenwald album, an LP so loud that I feared for the needle flying right out of the groove. The same disclaimer might well have been applied to 150 Murderous Passions, a 1981 joint project between Whitehouse and Nurse with Wound which works for reasons other than pure volume overload. It is genuinely frightening music. I bought it and played it on a day when no one else happened to be in the house, and it almost drove me out into the street. It was and still is as emotionally battering as Penderecki’s “Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima” or Ligeti’s “Atmospheres”.
Now that I think about it, Passions has a good deal more in common with the works of those composers than anything else Whitehouse or NWW did before or since. The fact that “Hiroshima” or “Atmospheres” used nothing more than orchestra to accomplish what they do is astounding, but that doesn’t make Passions’s use of tapes, found sounds, noise and studio techniques any less fearsome. It is one long, undulating shriek of horror — or maybe ecstasy, given that the title and many of the references within the record trace right back to Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Excerpts from the book can be heard read here and there, but the text isn’t crucial to appreciating any of the emotional effects generated by the record — it’s just the starting point, maybe something to meditate on casually while you’re being bludgeoned by what you hear. Read more
Politics behind the jump.Read more
The most pleasant surprise of Black Lagoon Vol. 3 is how it isn’t just about the “gun love”, in the words of the “absolutely freakin’ not for children” parental advisory block. There’s the gun-fu, to be sure — along with the gun-jitsu, and the gun-kwan-do — but there’s also a generous dollop of several other different kinds of underworld grit. The crew of the Lagoon put their bread on the table thanks to the New World Disorder: terrorism and smuggling and human trafficking, but also the way those things shape the different characters’ philosophies and outlooks. This is the world that creates badasses, and in volume 3 you learn a little bit more about how and why.
You didn’t have to look very far last time around to get an idea of just how twisted people can get when the underworld is all they know. Viz.: the brother-and-sister team of kinder-assassins, Hansel and Gretel. They’re like something out of a Bobbsey Twins book as written by Hannibal Lecter, and they are creating serious problems for Balalaika and Hotel Moscow. Ditto Chang, the local triad boss; he’s suffered ghastly losses no thanks to these two, and rather reluctantly partners with Balalaika to send these two kids packing into the great day-care center in the sky.Read more
On the first day of NaNoWriMo 2008, I racked up a nice, solid 2,143 words for Tokyo Inferno. My initial hesitancies about how difficult it was going to be and whether or not I would get mired down in topical details have more or less melted away. It's a first draft, and getting to the finish line / rounding all the bases / [insert metaphor here] matters most right now.
I'm gunning for a total length of about 120,000 words or so, although I don't mind it coming in a little shorter than that. I'm more concerned with making sure the right tone and substance are all present. So far, they are there, and all the ingredients are obediently lining up and allowing themselves to be made present.
Now if the @#$%&* NNWM website would just let me log in and post an update ... (Yet another argument for cloud-base hosting. Between hard drives dying and the power in their data center going out, I'm expecting an eighteen-wheeler to come crashing through the wall of the hosting center and grind the server into tinfoil.)
Update: I'll have the most recent word counts posted via Twitter.
The flaw itself which has been born
can become bigger than the flaw which bore it
Because I myself loved too much the universe itself,
saying "I love you", I will continue to curse myself …
The legacy of Fushitsusha ("The Unlost") and Keiji Haino spans over thirty years, with a trail of recordings that even the most die-hard record collectors have had trouble following. The jet-black sound (and look!) of these records is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Haino himself resisted the CD re-release of the legendary original PSF 3/4 album for quite some time, presumably to preserve the mystique associated with it. When it came out on CD at last, however, none of the Haino mystique was diminished in the slightest. In fact, each subsequent Haino/Fushitsusha release, old or new, only serves to enhance it all the more.
This isn't to say that every piece of Haino/Fushitsusha vinyl (or polycarbonate) is perfect. Some of them are downright boring and self-indulgent — and I'm sorry if I'm stepping on any Haino-worshipper's toes here, but there's a line to be drawn between "exploration" and "wankery." I thought Watashi-dake? was a tough sell, a very primordial Haino gagging and whispering — too "formative years" for all but the most devoted, something to experience after . Pathetique isn't perfect, but it has a huge helping of the same energy and fire that fueled their very best albums (like 15/16, for instance). Read more